The Asociación Forestal Integral Cruce la Colorada sawmill in Carmelita sustainably harvests mahogany and other timber from its community forest concession. Photo by: Jason Houston / USAID

MONTREAL — Forest areas managed by indigenous and local communities store nearly 300 billion metric tons of carbon — five times more than previously estimated — yet failure for these communities to have their rights formally recognized may lead forest-dependent people unable to protect carbon reserves, a new report claims.

“If we don't find a way to secure the rights of these indigenous peoples and communities who are trying to make a living, and trying to maintain and sustain their forests, we're all going to be worse off in the not-so-long term,” said Alain Fréchette, director for strategic analysis and global engagement at the Rights and Resources Initiative. “The urgency to act is paramount.”

The report, produced by RRI in collaboration with the Environmental Defense Fund, the Woods Hole Research Center, and Landmark, among others, is based on newly available data sets covering 64 countries and representing 69 percent of the world’s forest carbon. While previous estimates only focused on aboveground tropical forest carbon, this latest research takes into account carbon stored in trees, roots, and soil across tropical, subtropical, temperate, and boreal zones.

Linking tenure rights with environmental protection

Because forests capture and store much of the Earth’s carbon dioxide, preserving them is key to limiting greenhouse gas emissions and achieving the climate change mitigation goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. And as a result, securing tenure rights in forestlands is emerging as a cost-efficient way to protect forests against aggressive destruction and unsustainable exploitation. Deforestation rates are lower in forests where the rights of communities have been recognized, while a range of other benefits have also been observed — among them ecosystem services and livelihoods activities such as tourism and trade of forest products.

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But progress toward securing forest rights is far from assured. A separate report released by RRI shows that government recognition of land rights appears to be slowing down — at least in the 42 countries RRI has been tracking since 2002. What’s more, indigenous rights defenders are increasingly targeted by violence, criminalization, and threats, as outlined in a report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Victoria Tauli-Corpuz. According to Global Witness, at least 207 land and environmental defenders were killed in 2017, the worst year for such incidents on record.

“All over the world, physical violence and unjust legal harassment are used to silence Indigenous Peoples who oppose development projects on their lands,” said Tauli-Corpuz. “Development actors need to do everything in their power to put an end to the violence.”

Significant barriers

Among the barriers faced by communities is the heavy bureaucratic load associated with seeking recognition. A recent report by the World Resources Institute outlined the lengthy and often costly procedures communities must follow in order to formalize their rights, a process that can take up to several decades to complete.

“There really needs to be a regulation of community forestry that meets the needs of the communities, that takes into account the strengths and the weaknesses of the communities, that doesn't assume that the communities are professional foresters and can do all of the paperwork,” said David Kaimowitz, director of natural resources and climate change at the Ford Foundation — the foundation is among nine organizations who have pledged a total of $459 million to protect forests and support the recognition of indigenous communities’ collective land rights.

One country where communities are facing significant challenges in securing forest tenure, despite the national legislation evolving in their favor, is Liberia. The country has undertaken a series of legal reforms to recognize customary tenure over forest lands, but the capacity of the Liberia Land Authority in charge of implementing land laws, remains limited, and the regulatory framework remains complex, explained Gerardo Segura Warnholtz, senior natural resources management specialist at the World Bank.

“The steps that communities have to follow to become legally recognized to manage forests are very cumbersome and very costly,” he said.

In Liberia, the World Bank is developing policies and programs to support sustainable land management practices and poverty reduction initiatives among forest-dependent populations. Communities often lack the capacity to create the complex governance structures that are required to secure their rights, and then obtain permits for the management, extraction, and commercialization of forest products, Segura explained, leaving communities vulnerable to exploitative deals pushed for by private companies.

“Everything is against these communities,” he said. “The capacity of institutions, the conditions of communities, the remoteness of many of these communities, an institution that has little support to operate … And on top of that, you have this issue of corruption.”

The World Bank is currently working in partnership with the Program on Forests, a multidonor partnership that builds the capacity of forest initiatives to contribute to poverty reduction, sustainable development, and environmental conservation. The aim is to create an analytical framework that will disseminate knowledge and best practices on forest tenure to World Bank managers, donors, and policymakers, thus establishing community tenure as a pillar of development in forest areas, Segura explained.

Channeling international finance to local communities

Other World Bank-affiliated climate finance initiatives such as REDD+, which uses international climate finance for projects in 60 countries to reduce forest-based carbon emissions, the Forest Carbon Partnership and the BioCarbon Fund Initiative for Sustainable Forest Landscapes, have made efforts to boost their capacity-building programs after receiving criticism for insufficiently involving forest peoples in decision-making, resulting in higher vulnerability to land grabbing and degradation.

However civil society organizations and community groups are still largely unable to apply to these funds. “You have to be [structured] like a big, professional NGO to access this money,” said Rukka Sombolinggi, secretary-general of the Indigenous Peoples' Alliance of the Archipelago. “We end up spending all of our time serving the administration, and not doing the real work on the ground.”

“Indigenous peoples are increasingly being seen not as part of the problem, but as part of the solution; not people who need to be managed so that the rest of the environmentalists can go ahead and protect the forests, but really a recognition that [they] and the local communities are the people who protect the forests.”

— David Kaimowitz, director of natural resources and climate change, Ford Foundation

The International Land and Forest Tenure Facility, launched by RRI, is currently the only international, multistakeholder grant-making organization channeling international funding to forest communities. It works with external accounting firms to support communities in managing their funds, leaving communities in charge of deciding how the money is being spent.

“[Donors] really need to come up with new strategy,” Sombolinggi said. “You have to be flexible, responsive, but you have to also be efficient and accountable. It is doable.”

Last February, the Green Climate Fund adopted its indigenous people policy after a participatory process with civil society organizations and other indigenous groups. The policy provides guidelines for initiatives financed by the fund to uphold the rights of forest people, but the fund is yet to provide access to the demands of communities to create a dedicated funding window through which they can apply directly for funding, Fréchette noted.

“We're quickly running out of options, and the one option that hasn't been sufficiently explored and exploited thus far is how do we make people active participants in the changes that we want to see, and how do we support indigenous and local communities as active change agents and leaders in the developing world?” he asked.

Supporting community forestry

Few examples of large-scale sustainable, community-led forest management exist. One of them is the Maya Biosphere Reserve in the Petén Department of Guatemala, which covers 2.1 million hectares and is home to 180,000 people. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the government awarded concessions to nine communities and two private companies, under the condition that the forest is managed following the standards of the Forest Stewardship Council, an international, multistakeholder organization promoting sustainable forestry.

Exports of hardwood products like mahogany and other forest products are providing livelihood opportunities to local communities, who in turn care for the forest. According to a 2015 report by the Rainforest Alliance, FSC-managed parts of the reserve exhibited deforestation rates that were close to zero. Communities also contributed to the protection of threatened tree species.

An example from Mexico

Around 60 of Mexico’s forests are owned by communities — the result of various waves of agrarian and other reforms over the 20th century. Community governance structures have been created over time in order to allow communities to navigate the heavy regulatory environment, and engage in the exploitation and trade of forest resources. Evidence suggests that deforestation is also low in these areas, and conservation practices are contributing to environmental protection.

Ixtlán de Juárez, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca, is commonly cited as a community forestry success story: Forest-related activities have spurred a thriving economy that ranges from agroforestry to ecotourism, and parts of the profits are continuously reinvested into community-enterprises, creating a virtuous cycle of growth.

The forest economy in Ixtlán initially took off in part due to the community being able to rely on purchasing agreements from the government, RRI’s Fréchette explained, giving local enterprises a solid cushion on which they could rely to expand their activities.

More development funding is needed to support indigenous and local communities around the world in asserting their rights, but also in building their capacity to create the types of governance structures and enterprises that have spurred sustainable growth in Ixtlán, he explained.

“We need to change the narrative from securing sustainable supply chains, to creating sustainable value chains, where the end return is not so much the profit margin, but whether or not investments are creating value at all levels of the investment.”

Channeling international money to forest communities isn’t the only way to give a more active role to indigenous and local communities in the fight against climate change. Different types of partnerships could be formed to tap into the vast amount of knowledge held by indigenous peoples and local communities when it comes to environmental protection, Ford’s Kaimowitz explained. He cited recent partnerships formed with indigenous peoples by the governments of Canada, California, and Guatemala, to help mitigate the risks associated with wildfires.

“Indigenous peoples are increasingly being seen not as part of the problem, but as part of the solution; not people who need to be managed so that the rest of the environmentalists can go ahead and protect the forests, but really a recognition that [they] and the local communities are the people who protect the forests,” he said.

Update, Sept. 20, 2018: This article has been updated to clarify that forest areas managed by indigenous and local communities store nearly 300 billion metric tons of carbon.

About the author

  • Flavie Halais

    Flavie Halais is a freelance journalist based in Montreal, Canada, covering international issues and cities through a social lens. Her work has appeared in WIRED, the Guardian, Le Monde Afrique, Jeune Afrique, the Correspondent ,and Devex.